The Sunday Deep Dive

Wanted: Public spaces

Not very long ago, thousands, nay, lakhs of people gathered on the Marina, protesting for an issue they thought was essential to their identity — jallikattu. More recently, across the world, the occupation of urban public places has been central to protests and Tamil Nadu’s own version of ‘Occupy Tahrir Square’ did not go unnoticed. But what it also did was to drag to the centre the issue of public places and the need for urban designers and planners to guarantee to citizens adequate public spaces where they can come together as a commune, occupy them in protest, or simply enjoy the city by themselves, without any agenda.

“The current debate in urban design,” says A. Srivathsan, urban designer and academic director, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, “is all about creating public places.” Across the globe, there has been a renewed interest in the concept of public spaces, not only as a vector for expressing political dissent, but also in themselves, in the way they allow the citizens to come together. Traditionally, planners conceived of public places primarily as parks, he adds. These were more of micro-public places.

Potential squandered

“In Chennai, in the last two decades, we have not really created new public places, though the potential to do so is huge. We’ve had a number of malls come up, but a mall, though it pretends to be a public place is actually a consumptive private place,” Prof. Srivathsan explains.

Until the 1980s, there was a conscious plan to create public spaces in the city. Every colony that was created, — from T. Nagar in the 1930s to Besant Nagar in the 1960s — was built keeping public spaces in mind.

The concept of setting aside Open Space Reservation for any property occupying a certain number of square feet was actually an instrument to ensure that parks and open lands were preserved. As penalty, those failing to reserve the OSR would had to pay the equivalent in money to be used to create only public places.

In order to provide for the preservation and regulation of open spaces in the State, the ‘Tamil Nadu Parks, Playfields and Open Spaces (Preservation and Regulation) Act, 1960’ was also enacted. Open spaces are periodically notified under the Act by the local bodies concerned. However, it has failed to change the situation and the Chennai Corporation has just 502 parks, most of which are poorly designed public spaces.

 

A few years ago, former CMDA Vice Chairperson Susan Mathew had planned to design the entire stretch of Anna Salai, offering public spaces for thousands along the stretch. But the ambitious project failed to take off, owing to challenges in making public policy decisions.

As recently as a few months ago, Greater Chennai Corporation officials conducted a study of the pedestrianisation project (another instance of creating micro public places) with the support of NGOs and various other members of civil society. “Another study will be conducted shortly. We will design 23 roads in T. Nagar in the first phase,” says Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner and Special Officer D.Karthikeyan. However, the civic body requires huge funds to implement such projects. With just ₹650 crore in property tax revenue per annum, Chennai has to rely on funding from multilateral agencies and banks for such projects.

A number of urban planners also attribute the reluctance of the government to design urban public spaces for the past few years to the need to spend on other basic infrastructure development projects such as roads and stormwater drains.

Iconic spaces

Aswathy Dilip, senior associate at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, says many cities including New York and London have many iconic public spaces.

“In Chennai, such public spaces are very limited. When you look at Chennai, the Marina beach is all that people remember as a good public space. If you look at New York, it also has a very good waterfront, at the same time there is a Central Park that people associate with the city. Yet recently, an old railway line in New York has been converted into an extremely vibrant public space. Similarly, if we look at other cities like London, we have wonderful public spaces that are not restricted to one location”.

Young architect Tahaer Zoyab of Triple O Studios says there has been a shift in the way the public is looking at public spaces — as spots that every one can access without feeling uncomfortable. “We need to take care to ensure that they remain neutral spaces where you can go to do your own thing without being self-conscious. This is something you can do easily on the Marina, and not quite, in a mall,” he stresses.

His team has proposed a variety of urban designs as part of their Envisage Project to improve and develop public spaces in Chennai. Some of his urban designs include smart designs of parks, non-motorised facilities for pedestrianisation from Royapuram to Mamallapuram, a plaza to have a view Anna Salai and a makeover for the broken bridge on the Adyar Estuary.

Mr. Zoyab also argues that the State can create these public places without substantial alterations to the existing architecture to make these places inclusive and welcoming. In his opinion, key among the must-haves in a public place is shelter and seats, a contextualised space for exhibition and commune and some stalls for refreshment and entertainment that people who want to pay can use.

“However, even if you don’t want to pay a penny, the public place should help you do that as well,” he adds. Eventually a public place will also facilitate decongesting thecity and make tourism viable. He also stresses the importance of monitoring the projects carefully in order to ensure that they do not become dens of anti-social elements, a thing the parks of this city have too often fallen prey to.

Public engagement and involvement in creating public spaces is absolutely essential, argues Mahesh Radhakrishnan, architect and urban designer, Madras Office for Architects and Designers (MOAD). Chennai, he points out, is well endowed with multiple waterways (three rivers) and a long shoreline. He makes a case for developing the ‘water edges’ to anchor public places. “The moment you do that, you also address the problem of flooding and cleaning up the waterway follows at some point.” One of MOAD’s projects is a proposal to build a walkway at the Pallikaranai marshland from Taramani to Keelkattalai — with spots for bird watching and small spaces for gathering together. Another of his experiments was to work with residents of Urur Olcott Kuppam to create a micro public place, a venture that has seen success.

Quality of life

According to him, the debate about public spaces in an urban context is also a debate on the quality of life of the average citizen. “We need to bring back public places and their link with quality of life back into the discourse,” Mr. Radhakrishnan adds.

Irrespective of the initiative of well-meaning urban designers and the community, it is important for the state to be invested in any project to create public spaces in the city. “Any grand imagination requires the involvement of the state. In fact it is the duty of the state to ensure ‘publicness of space’. Also, in terms of ownership, public places can only rest with the state or community. Any private ownership of land renders it vulnerable,”Prof. Srivathsan argues.

With inputs from Aloysius Xavier Lopez


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Printable version | Jun 14, 2022 10:59:17 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/wanted-public-spaces/article17368900.ece